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For at least two and a half millennia, the figure of Orpheus has haunted humanity. Half-man, half-god, musician, magician, theologian, poet, and lover, his story never leaves us. He may be myth, but his lyre still sounds, entrancing everything that hears it: animals, trees, water, stones, and men.
In this extraordinary work, Ann Wroe goes in search of Orpheus, tracing the man and the power he represents through the myriad versions of a fantastical life: his birth in Thrace, his studies in Egypt, his voyage with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece, his love for Eurydice and the journey to Hades, and his terrible death. We see him tantalizing Cicero and Plato, and breathing new music into Gluck and Monteverdi; occupying the mind of Jung and the surreal dreams of Cocteau; scandalizing the fathers of the early Church, and filling Rilke with poems like a whirlwind. He emerges as not simply another mythical figure but the force of creation itself, singing the song of light out of darkness and life out of death.
“Did Orpheus exist? Wroe thinks he did, and still does, and dedicates this lyrical biography to doubters.” —The New Yorker
“This insightful and visionary study, treading a perfect line between imagination and scholarship, is as readable and necessary as a fine novel. Ted Hughes, another mythographer, would have loved it.” —The Independent
“A book to make readers laugh, sing and weep.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[Orpheus] will leave you dancing.” —New Statesman
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
First string: Winter
On the morning of February 2nd 1922, Rainer Maria Rilke went up to his study and shut the door.
He was a slight man with large blue eyes that seemed, on cold days, to brim continuously with water. With a handkerchief, he dabbed the tears away. Neatness was in his nature. He wore a perfectly knotted tie; for his morning walks along empty country lanes, a homburg carefully brushed, and a cane in hand; well-shined shoes. His drooping moustache was meticulously clipped, hiding a sensual mouth above a weak, timid chin.
For his first five years his parents had named him and dressed him as a girl. They had then dispatched him to a brutal military academy. The damage was lasting. Against the odds he had become an Austrian poet of distinction, whose books by 1914 sold in thousands and went into several editions. But he retained a certain delicacy, an air of shyness, that hid his steel resolve and drew protective and passionate women into his life. One of them, Merline Klossowska, had helped him find this place to work in: a small, square fortress called the Château de Muzot, without electricity or running water, in the foothills of the French Alps.
The study looked out on the pretty woods and vineyards of the Valais, now winter-bare. It answered his longing for 'a room of my own, with a few old things and a window opening onto great trees'. Dark oak beams spanned the ceiling, low enough to make him duck instinctively as he paced about, though he was not tall. Beside the window was a standing-desk, made exactly to his specifications, at which he always wrote. In this room, as he had pledged in 1906, he would 'kneel down and stand up daily', alone, 'and keep holy all that befalls me.'
All was in order. He was ready. The candlestick on the bookcase, the new glass-lidded box for tacks and pens razor-straight on the table, the porcelain vase standing exactly where it had stood before, though it held no roses now, for those were past, or yet to come. Somewhere on the bookshelves lay a French prose version of Ovid's Metamorphoses, recently reread. Rilke had been steeping himself again in the story of Orpheus, the magician-singer of the ancient world, his love for Eurydice and his descent to Hades to rescue her. A Renaissance engraving of Orpheus by Cima da Conegliano, reproduced on a postcard, was also pinned over his desk. Merline had spotted it in a local shop. It showed a young man in page's clothes, under a spreading tree, singing sadly to a lira da braccio while two deer listened. It reminded Rilke, though he needed no reminding, of his mission as a poet.
It also helped preserve the memory of a young friend, Vera Knoop, who had died two months before. She was nineteen, and had suffered from a baffling glandular disease. For years she had astonished people with her dancing and her 'dark, strange, fiery loveliness' until, at the end of childhood, she suddenly told her mother that she would not dance any more. In her last weeks Orpheus had begun to haunt her: invisibly playing music to which she raised her tired, wasting arms, gently pushing the pencil with which she tried, wearily, to draw.
But Rilke would not think of her this morning. He was trying to finish a great symphony of poetry, his Duino Elegies, which sang of the sublime, violent interaction between angels and men. After ten years of neglecting it, inspiration was beginning to stir again. He dared not risk losing or unsettling it.
Consciously empty yet anticipating something, 'wrapping myself more and more closely round my heart', he took up his station at the standing-desk.
And suddenly, Orpheus was there.
The singer of singers. To Rilke he needed no introduction; to us, perhaps, he does. We demand a curriculum vitae, a flyer or a calling card. Instead he brings music and the wind with him, and no information.
His origins are lost. In the beginning he was perhaps a vegetation god, a deity of growth, death and resurrection. Hence 'Orpheus', by one derivation: dark, obscure, out of the earth. But godhead gradually slipped away from him, leaving only a sense of election and the power, through his music, to change landscapes, seasons, hearts.
To the Thracians, among whom perhaps he really lived thirty centuries ago, he was a king, a shaman and a traveller through the realms of the dead. To the ancient Greeks he was the first singer of holy songs and the founder of their mysteries, an enchanter who could make the stones skip, the trees dance and birds waver in the air. (He still can; ask him.) He was the companion of the Argonauts and their priest on the voyage to find the Golden Fleece: a teacher of beauty and order who was eventually torn apart, in Thrace, by followers of the wine god Dionysus and devotees of chaos.
By the fifth century BC he had acquired a wife, Eurydice, and when she died he went down to Hades, armed only with music, to bargain for her with the rulers of the Underworld. But the Greeks hardly cared for this part of his story. It was the Romans, especially Ovid and Virgil in their poetry, who made of him a lover so ardent that he challenged death. Both his love and his art were pitted against annihilation, and though he failed, they became immortal. That is mostly why the world remembers him.
In this guise of sweet singer, lover and loser, Orpheus has wandered through history. Poets, artists and composers have constantly evoked this figure, and still do. But the teacher and philosopher was not forgotten by Renaissance Florence or the nineteenth-century theosophists; the magician and spell-binder, familiar to the Greeks, was remembered by alchemists until Newton's time; his adventure in Hell was allegorised as the journey of the soul by Boethius in the sixth century AD, as well as by Freud and Jung in the twentieth. For at least sixteen centuries Christians easily imagined him, with his miracles and parables, his redeeming power and his bloody, sacrificial death, as a forerunner of Jesus, though preaching with song in the forests of ancient Greece rather than the deserts of Judaea.
To some degree you could argue that each age revisits him. Yet none puts its stamp on him definitively, because the young man with the lyre is different for everyone who meets him. Each encounter makes him anew, until it is clear that the vulnerable human figure still conceals his most primal incarnation: the pulse of creation, the song of life, then, now, always.
Perhaps you have heard his footstep – perhaps Rilke heard it. But it is rare to do so. His feet are bare, or strapped in light sandals, or cased in boots of soft fawn-skin turned over at the top in the Thracian style. The leather is thin because he needs to tap the ground, or feel it, as he plays. And it is thin because he has journeyed so far towards us.
Greek Orpheus is naked but for a chlamys, a short cloak, which usually drapes him from the waist. It has no certain colour, though poets think it blue. His head is uncovered, his long dark ringlets held back with a wreath of laurel, or ribbon, or gold thread. In his eastern guise he wears a striped dalmatic over baggy trousers and a gold tiara, or Persian turban, the mark of a prince. Thracian Orpheus wears leggings stitched along the side-seam, a warm, thick cloak clasped at the right shoulder and a cone-shaped Phrygian cap, proper to wanderers, countrymen and radicals, that is often revolutionary red and sometimes sown with stars.
The first mention you will find of him, and the earliest certain painting, date from the sixth century BC. The painting, in black-figure on a Greek vase, shows him stepping up to a platform with pointed toe, dancing, in a pleated robe and with a huge lyre that seems to be part of him. The lettering around the figure cries 'Hail, Orpheus'. The written fragment, by Ibycus, calls him 'famous'. As far back as we can trace Orpheus he is celebrated, a star. In fact, he may have been pictured long before he was named: on a clay vase from Crete of the thirteenth century BC, and on a plaque of the same age from Syria- Palestine. On each his lyre was oversized, denoting divine power; on both, charmed birds flew to his playing, as if drawn down by magnets from the sky. The Cretan vase showed him crested and beaked, a bird himself, or an avatar of song.
He has never left men's consciousness since. But it is a strange sort of haunting. The evidence for him lies in tiny fragments: a line here, a mention there, dubia vel spuria, as the scholars say. Orpheus roams Western civilisation much as balladeers, hurdy-gurdy men, pipers and storytellers used to travel the back roads of America and Europe. Possibly he has come even further, from ancient India, where a god of hunting or fishing spread a net that became a lyre of enchantment, to catch men's souls. He has no certain roots, but keeps returning, as if he has something urgent to transmit to us.
Inevitably, his home is out of doors. He needs, as Rilke put it once, 'the open country, wide ways, barefoot wanderings on soft grass, on hard roads or pure snow, deep breathing, listening, silence and the hush of evening'. He never stays. He is a shadow in the doorway, a face outside the window in the night rain, begging not for bread or coins, but for attention. When we hear him, time stops and for a moment everything is changed; but then he moves on.
Homer's epics never included him. Aristotle said he had never lived. Cicero wrote as though he agreed, calling Orpheus's hymns 'fairy stories'. 'Now how', he added, 'can I form a mental picture of someone who has never existed? Yet Orpheus, or the image of him, often enters my mind.' Socrates, about to drink the hemlock, mused joyfully on the possibility of talking with him in Hades. It was precisely because Orpheus was a proper, flesh-and-blood man 'and not a wind', wrote Claudio Monteverdi, that people were moved by his story. Hard proof was always lacking. But in truth he existed – he exists – wherever he is thought of, believed in or imagined. Chaucer saw him in his House of Fame, sitting in a niche in a turret of pure beryl, playing 'ful craftely'; Wordsworth saw him in 1806 in Oxford Street, his back to a sooty wall, playing the violin to a crowd of apprentices, cripples and bakers' boys, 'twenty souls happy / As souls in a dream'. As Rilke was to write of the unicorn, at Orpheus's dictation, 'It was not, but love / brought it to be, and men always left space for it.' They left space for him.
His face may be a man's or a boy's; you cannot tell. It bears a youthful fuzz of stubble, the cynosure of male beauty for the Greeks, but also the lines of grief and experience. His eyes are deep as pools, and watchful; his eyebrows thick, his nose straight. You will notice his hands, fine, strong, long-fingered, as a pianist's are: the nails trimmed squarely, the knuckles tested and flexed, and with a sense of fluttering movement in them, even at rest. A quick pencil line will catch him, as Jean Cocteau drew him for the opening frames of his film Orphée in 1950, joining dot to dot to make his profile, finishing with a star. Or a thin brush will snare him, moistened with spittle and dipped in black paint, on the curve of a terracotta vase. Near the Temple of the Winds in Athens is a shop with dozens of such vases, of every size, stacked among the Acropolis T-shirts and the football flags that stir in the breeze from the hot, dog-wandered street. You may buy a perfect Orpheus there, and then a better and still better one, his bent black head outlined with white, his dark eye serious, and with strange heart-shaped laurel leaves garlanding his hair. In a smoke-filled room not far away, men and women are painting more, on an oilcloth-covered table under a flickering TV screen. Brow, nose, chin, the singing mouth, the hands, the lyre.
That face was drawn throughout the Roman Empire, on door jambs and tympanums, in bedrooms, on garden walls. Philostratus the younger, walking through a gallery in Naples around AD 240, paused to admire a painting of him:
Orpheus sits there, the down of a first beard spreading on his cheeks, a tiara bright with gold tall on his head, his eye tender, yet alert and divinely inspired as his mind ever reaches out to divine themes. Perhaps even now he is singing a song; indeed his eyebrow seems to indicate the sense of what he sings, and his robe changes colour with his movements ...
Orpheus with a charmed stag was painted in the Domus Aurea, Nero's palace, and his face was on the red-gloss trays; Hadrian had a mural of him captivating Cerberus, the three-headed dog-guardian of the Underworld. But he was also on the beechwood cups carved for the shepherd Damoetas in Virgil's Eclogues: cups far too fine to drink from, offered as a singing prize, kept under lock and key in a smoky cottage in the hills. His image was on rings, wine vessels, mirrors, plates and medallions. It appeared on coins struck in Thrace, his supposed country, and in Alexandria, where some thought he had studied.
Most of all, from the mid-second century, it was laid in villa floors. His face was made of tiny tesserae piled, arranged and grouped by colour: black for the outline, red for the open, singing lips, white and brown for the eyes that stared on divine things. At Arae Flaviae (now Rottweil, in south-western Germany) 750,000 tesserae were ordered to make his long white robe, his cloak clasped at the shoulder, his pale hands plucking the lyre and his glance, tender, passionate and surprised, at the raven listening to him. The workmen whistled; Orpheus appeared. Though long ago he had been dismembered, he was reconstructed and he lived. In mosaics at Brading on the Isle of Wight, Palermo, Jerusalem, Woodchester on the Welsh borders, Paphos, Hanover, Tarsus, Sparta and Vienna he plays still, the plectrum in his right hand, the strings set ringing with his left, while animals circle around him. He is so ubiquitous that it would be no surprise, taking the path through a little wood near Sudeley in Gloucestershire where Roman floors still lie beneath the brambles, to find in a timber cloche, under a tarpaulin, the leaves dark and crowding overhead, his singing face.
His eyes seldom look at you. When he sings, he stares heavenwards; at rest, his glance is elsewhere. Rilke, though gradually possessed by Orpheus – unable to leave his standing-desk for that pressure, that presence – feels and hears him, rather than endures his gaze. Atheneus called him a 'semi-god', but he seems too shy for that: polite but removed, by choice a loner. No vanity is in him, as far as appearance goes. He does not look in mirrors, though he knows what they show is true: the self and the world seen from the other side, by clear-eyed Death. Mirrors belong on his altars, objects of ritual and respect. He wears no ornaments, save perhaps a ring of agate engraved with a tree, which, by his own account, will make him pleasing to the gods. He can never be too pleasing, never too close.
Little seems essential to him. He carries no provisions for his wanderings, and if they are offered he will probably refuse them. A piece of sooty, flaky barley-cake, fresh out of the fire, and a cup of water are all he requires. Food impairs the voice, obstructs the throat; he prefers to sing and practise fasting, with just a swallow of milk and honey, holy food, to give the smoothness he needs. He abstains from the eggs of birds as 'living things', though his imagery of the beginning of creation is the cloudy membrane of an egg breaking, spilling out light. Wine he sips only as a cautious, meditative act, since the mixing of wine and water in the bowl is a metaphor for the creation of mortal things; or because it represents the cup of wisdom and self-surrender offered to souls, if they will drink. Hand him an apple, as Rilke was to do, and it will become – as if by magic – a totem of invisible things: a tree at the edge of the Libyan desert, and a nymph's raised white arms; a memory of a table, a bowl, the play of the light, in another place; a shiver of Tod und Leben, death and life, as the hard flesh is crushed into sweetness. He turns it into mind-food, as poets do. Only after this, which is the work of a moment, will he eat it in the ordinary way.
Meat he refuses, both as food and offering, because the gods do not need blood sacrifices – and because meat-eating, like flute-playing, binds a man to the sensual world. While others slice meat on bread, he prefers a little thyme, or cress, or saltwort. He stays cool, while others are heated or excited by eating flesh. Beans he abominates, believing that they corrupt the breath of the body (turning it into a hollow, trumpeting pipe of filth) and seeing them, with their twisting stems and white moon-flowers, as ways for the ancestral dead to climb back to the upper world. He does not wear wool, because it is the coat of something living. His taboos seem as capricious as a teenager's, or as those of some Pacific islander who will not sleep beneath the breadfruit tree because of some ancient, half-remembered curse. But he has barricaded them behind philosophy, and he holds fast to them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Orpheus"
Copyright © 2011 Ann Wroe.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Ann Wroe,
First string: Winter,
Second string: Trees,
Third string: The sea,
Middle string: Love,
Fifth string: Death,
Sixth string: Fame,
Seventh string: Scattering,